Formal analysis


Basalt statue of Cihuateotl, National Museum of the American Indian, NY


Detail of her hair

This basalt sculpture depicts a female figure who is seated and measures sixty-six inches in height and 36 inches by 33 inches at the base. Her face, with large eyes, open mouth, and visible teeth is framed by a mass of detailed carved hair and circular earrings. Seated with her arms resting on her knees, her body language appears peaceful while her face reveals tension and hunger for something unknown.

The overall state of the basalt stone of the statue is well preserved and has no part broken or missing. The quality of the stone appears porous all over giving the surface of the statue homogeneity. This material gives the surface of the statue an organic appearance, the grooves are more pronounced on the body and less on the face. The pose makes the statue appear peaceful because it does not create any drastic or deep shadows allowing the light to shine on the curves of the body and head. It is important to understand that from a few details the viewer can guess the gender of this statue. The lightly pronounced breast and the longer hair make this statue appear very feminine. Differently, the plain skirt and the simple knotted belt are some attributes that can be found in male Gods as well. The eyes, the mouth, and the hands do not necessarily indicate a gender distinction.

The head is oval shaped: narrow towards the chin and wider towards the forehead, while the neck is not sculpted. It does not seem that the artist wanted to give any particular facial characteristics to the figure since it appears very similar to other common Mexica statues. The simple modeling of this face is subtle and powerful at the same time, imposing the power of the Goddess. The carving around the ridges of the eyebrows, shaping the forehead, gives tridimensional proportions to the figure. The eyes are composed of a few simple sculpted lines that shape the pupils and the eyelids. They are symmetric and proportionate to the overall face, appearing almost identical. They do not show any emotion in her face, making her look severe and composed. The nose is positioned in the center of the face in a symmetrical way, and it is surrounded by a cheek crease on each side. The open mouth is very large and has an elongated shape; there are twelve square-shaped teeth. The lower lip is lightly outlined and the upper lip is non-existent. The horizontal lines of the mouth break the proportions of the whole and create a sense of tension. Since most of the lines that appear on this statue are soft and curved, these horizontal lines convey stillness that is not present in the rest of the body. This particular detail creates a formal opposition in comparison to the rest of the sculpted stone.

An important feature of the head is the hair. The hair in this statue is composed by a sequence of repeated swirls and twists of symbols. This specific symbol represents the malinalli, grass. The shape of the head and the lines that create this repeated motif convey peacefulness to the viewer. If the viewer faces the back of the statue the eye is drawn directly to the intricate design of the hair that, since repeated multiple times, is psychologically comforting. For the Mexica, grass was the symbol of disorder, but, in this case, it is depicted in a harmonious and repetitive pattern to signify the desire for order. The empowered Goddess is beautified by this d├ęcor on her hair making her seem even more respectable and strong.

In this statue, there is not a defined presence of the neck between the head and the shoulders making it appear very surrealistic, but still symmetric. The head sits on a strong and wide semi-detailed body where the positive space that is created by the arms is very voluminous and in symmetry overall with the rest of the figure. In comparison with the details of the hair, the body is generalized and the features of the legs and the feet seem to be absent. The statue appears curved and static in the seated position; no muscle is carved in it. The broad shoulders are hidden by some of the hair and form a continuous line to the bend in her legs. The curved lines of the body convey a sense of peacefulness and ease.  

The eye of the viewer is first drawn to the face of this Goddess who, with her open mouth and prominent teeth, appears solemn and powerful. The eye moves to her intricate hair and then to the simple seated position enhanced by the knotted rope around her waist. The harmony of the pose is offset by the aggressiveness of her open mouth and teeth. The face seems aggressive and dominant towards the viewer conveying a sense of terror. Why would the artist depict this statue in such a peaceful position, but with an open mouth and bared teeth? When we concentrate our gaze to this particular feature of the statue, every other element starts appearing aggressive and tense.

The overall statue appears static, but the attributes of the face make it look alive and ready to speak or possibly bite. The pose of this statue was probably signifying a particular religious practice, as the mouth and the hair that seemed both distinct elements of it. As many Gods, this figure may be intended to bestow protection or be on the verge to attack. This sense of ambiguity is the bottom line of many religious representations leaving the viewers with a sense of mystery. 


Formal analysis